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Coming Home to Stay

posted Feb 20, 2013, 10:15 AM by Julio Zaldivar   [ updated Feb 20, 2013, 10:15 AM by Julio Zaldivar ]
A few weeks ago  Assemblyman Isadore Hall III presented Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher with the RAND Corporation, with the AB109 Re-Entry Award,  in recognition of “outstanding contributions and unwavering dedication to our community” through research presented in the RAND Report “Understanding the Public Health implications of Prisoner Reentry in California”.  A summary of the research findings can be found at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9634.html .

California maintains the highest prison population in the nation, in a country that has the highest rates of incarceration in the world.  As rates of incarceration have risen dramatically since the 1970s, a corresponding 300% increase in the number of men and women released from California prisons has occurred in the past twenty years.  Now, with the implementation of prison realignment in response to AB109, even more individuals are returning to local communities.

Lois Davis’ work has helped to focus policymakers’ attention on the need to improve reentry processes and services for individuals returning to local communities.  The report highlights disproportionate levels of chronic diseases (e.g., asthma and hypertension), infectious diseases (e.g., hepatitis and tuberculosis), and most significantly, drug abuse treatment and mental health care needs.  However, while the numbers of individuals returning to communities from incarceration has increased, the health care, mental health, and substance abuse safety nets have had to reduce or eliminate many critical services in response to repeated budget cuts at federal, state, and local levels.

Prison reentry does not occur evenly across the State.  Certain counties have much higher rates of return from prison, with Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego experiencing the highest rates of return.  Parolees also tend to cluster within certain communities and neighborhoods: Kern County has four neighborhood clusters that account for 58% of parolees in the County; Alameda County has five clusters accounting for 45% of the returning prison population.  But the needed health and behavioral health services are not always located in the same neighborhoods where the returning prisoners are clustered, resulting in high variability in access to safety net resources by type of service, geographic access, and disparities based on race/ethnicity.

Public safety realignment, through AB109, reduces the prison population in part by closing the revolving door of low-level offenders cycling in and out of prison.  But if health care safety nets are not strengthened in the communities most impacted by reentry, providing opportunities for those released to receive the support necessary reintegrate into their communities, the cycling in and out of incarceration will merely shift from the state to county level.  Unfortunately, many counties are using AB109 funds to expand jail capacity – both facilities and staff – in anticipation of higher numbers under local supervision.  Contra Costa County is to be commended for a decision to forego a planned jail expansion, and instead invest those funds into housing, employment, health and human services and other reentry supports.  In San Diego, a partnership between foundations, families and public safety agencies called Coming Home to Stay has demonstrated for years that community-based systems can break the cycle of crime, violence, poverty and incarceration by giving support to formerly incarcerated men, women and their families.

We all have an opportunity to create safer, healthier neighborhoods by making sure that there are programs in place to provide family members, neighbors and friends returning from  prison with the support they need to get back on their feet—and to send a message that they are coming home to stay.

blog by Steve Eldred, Program Manager at The California Endowment